A pair of Florida lawmakers want to make a right-wing documentary mandatory viewing in the state’s public schools. And here’s a twist: One of them was very recently championed a new law that enhances local control over curriculum choices.
The hilariously titled “Patriotic Film Screening” bills introduced in both houses of the state legislature would require 8th graders to watch America: Imagine the World Without Her, a 2014 film by the highly controversial conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza. They’d also watch it in 11th grade too, just in case they missed out on any of the film’s finely tuned political messages. It’s a blatant and dangerous attack on academic freedom.
D’Souza has explained America as a corrective on the dominant left-wing version of U.S. history being forced on public school students. The film did not impress reviewers or actual historians; professor Nicole Hemmer wrote that America “will make debate coarser and less informed. It will foster conspiratorial thinking and political polarization.”
But it is precisely the political content of the film that makes it appealing to one of the bill’s sponsors, State Senator Alan Hays. He thinks America counters the “misrepresentation of American history that is being perpetrated in our school system.”
Given the filmmaker’s record– from blaming the 9/11 attacks on the “cultural left” to arguing that Barack Obama is guided by his father’s “anticolonial ideology”–it’s no surprise that he has plenty of critics. But it’s not just the film’s political opponents who are uncomfortable with making America required viewing. A member of the school board in Lee County explained that while she’s fond of the film, she can’t help but see a double standard: “A lot of people who are out there are anti-Common Core, anti-government control, but they’re totally behind this bill because they like the message.”
Indeed, less than one year ago the state senator behind this effort was championing a bill, S. 864, to give local districts more control: “Local school districts, not the state or federal government, are the most qualified to determine what textbooks are appropriate for Florida’s classrooms,” declared State Senator Alan Hays– who apparently doesn’t feel the same way when it comes to the state requiring students to watch a film that reflects his political beliefs.
Is there any chance that a bill that would mandate students watch such a flimsy documentary actually become law? That seems doubtful. It’s even proving controversial among conservatives who hold similar views about public schools.
But like other kinds of challenges to controversial books or works of art, the point might not be to win, but to send a message to educators: Powerful politicians think you’re doing a terrible job, and will go to extreme lengths to make that point. Last year, during a similar debate over academic freedom in South Carolina, NCAC sent a letter to the state Senate declaring that
…it is the right of faculty, based on their disciplinary and pedagogical expertise, to develop curriculum and assign books free of outside political interference by legislators who lack such expertise.
That is a principle that politicians everywhere should understand.